John Kerry’s blood libel

By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

John Kerry will lose this presidential election — guaranteed — and it will happen because he violated one of the most important religious laws, inculcated within nearly every Jewish child from the youngest age: God commands us not to slander and not to engage in malicious gossip.

Even during the Republican convention, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth continued to pummel and hammer John Kerry with negative TV ads about his wartime record in Vietnam, his indictment of the troops as war criminals upon his return and his public discarding of the medals he won for his service.

What motivates the Swifties? The Democrats say George W. Bush is behind them. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why the Swifties so loathe John Kerry. Kerry robbed them of honor and condemned them to infamy when he came back from the war and called them decapitators and rapists. We Jews call this Lashon Hara, the sin of the evil tongue, and it is a sin equated with murder. Killing a man’s reputation is the equivalent of killing the man himself. His head sinks in public; he wishes he were dead. When you shame a man, you make him wish he could disappear into thin air. It is one thing to end a man’s life. It is quite another to make him wish he would never have been born.

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth despise John Kerry for spreading the lie that American soldiers in Vietnam were for the most part dishonorable marauders, running around the countryside “in a manner reminiscent of Genghis Khan.” These statements, coming from a charismatic, Yale-educated and decorated officer, were eminently believable and made a tremendous impact on the nation, ensuring that millions of heroic lives would be destroyed.

A woman in Rhode Island told me that when her husband came home from Vietnam, wearing his uniform, he was set upon by hooligans and beaten up in the streets. Thousands of other Vietnam veterans came back and were repeatedly rejected for jobs. After all, would you hire an accused murderer to work for you? Americans loathed these returning “butchers” whom they had been told had disgraced themselves in a ten-year orgy of violence and plunder.

We Jews know what it’s like to be slandered in this way. It’s called a blood libel, and it’s history goes back more than a thousand years to when the Jews were first accused of slaughtering innocent Christian children for ritual purposes. One can only imagine the horror of Jews who were striving to lead outstanding moral and ethical lives, devoted to a strict religious code, suddenly being accused of the most unspeakable atrocities. The charge, understandably, enraged the Jews. They wondered what they could possibly have done to deserve such malicious accusations. But living under tyrannical regimes, they were powerless to stop it, and they had no choice but to suffer under the terrible consequences of being branded baby-killers.

But John O’Neill and his fellow former soldiers live in a free and open society, and they are anything but powerless. Now put yourself into the shoes of the Swift Boat Veterans, whose only crime was to go to a foreign nation and fight for its liberty so that its citizens would not be subjected to communist cruelty. Yet, they were called baby-killers by Kerry and his colleagues. If you were them, wouldn’t you be enraged?

So the Swifties decided that their reputations were too precious to be silent. They struck back. They would not allow a man who had slandered them to become the commander in chief. All they had wanted was to fight for the freedom and justice of the Vietnamese people, and they were punished for their good deeds by being called cold-blooded killers. Kerry maligned their credibility, so they went after his in return. Kerry called them war criminals, so they tried to show that he was the real war criminal. Some call it karma; others call it payback. On the streets, they say, “What goes around comes around.” But we Jews understand that this is simply the inevitable and tragic outcome of all malicious gossip, which is why Judaism is so passionate about stamping it out from society.

Gossip creates a spiteful cycle that has no end, because the moment someone steps forward to ruin your reputation, the only way you can save yourself is by ruining theirs in turn. If someone smears your credibility, you are onto the defensive and you have to attack theirs in return. Only then will the public dismiss the allegations against you.

Kerry’s supporters argue that in his 1971 Senate testimony he was only repeating what he had heard from other Vietnam vets at the Winter Soldier meetings in Detroit. This is not convincing. The sin of malicious gossip prohibits not only inventing harmful fiction but repeating it as well.

The Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, is just around the corner. The Jewish tradition has been that we go to each other begging forgiveness for any bad things that we may have said about one another behind each other’s backs. It’s a particularly awkward moment when you have to go to a colleague and reveal to them that you slandered them.

John Kerry doesn’t have to have that awkward moment. The veterans already know what he said about them because Kerry did it front of the whole world. But Kerry can end all the attacks against him by the Swifties by simply offering a heartfelt and sincere apology. Our soldiers in Vietnam were overwhelmingly good and heroic men, and they deserve to be acknowledged as such. Kerry can simply say that he is sorry for transmitting such malicious gossip against those who sacrifice most for this country. And hopefully, the veterans will rise to the difficult but rewarding challenge of bestowing complete forgiveness.

Of course, there is also another choice. Kerry can continue to do what he’s doing now, blaming a vast right-wing conspiracy for the ads, which sounds eerily familiar. But that would not bring healing to himself, the veterans or this great nation.